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How do I know if my cat loves me?

How do I know if my cat loves me?

 

cat loving a person

Do you love your cat? Silly question, right?

 

If you’re like me, you love everything about your cat: the way she walks, even when she’s walking away from you, the way she smells when you burrow your nose into her fur, and the cute little chirps she makes when she wants a treat, even at 2 AM.

 

You love your cat enough to come home early from a party or a date, just to make sure he doesn’t have to wait too long for supper. You love him enough to take him to the vet, even when you don’t know how you’re going to afford it.

 

But does your cat love you? Are cats even capable of love?

 

It’s a challenging topic, because it involves knowing the mind of another. It’s hard enough to know the minds of other people, and they can talk and tell you how they feel.

 

So, let’s talk about love, and what we know about love and cats.

 

Does it matter if our cats love us back?

 

cat loving a person

Let’s face it: life with cats is pretty one-sided. Only one of you is shopping (and paying!) for the cat food. Only one of you is cleaning out the litter box.

 

That’s the deal we make with cats. So, why do we even care if they love us back?

 

According to Psychology Today, the need to be loved is considered one of our most fundamental needs. We need to feel loved in order to have a fulfilling and happy life.[1]

 

But all the psychological research on the human need for love has been about the need for love…from other humans. Not pets.

 

Why do we love cats if we’re not sure they love us back?

 

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cat loving a person

So, why do we love our cats, and put up with all of the work and expense of keeping them, not to mention the heartbreak of eventually losing them, if we’re not really sure that they love us back?

 

It’s actually fundamental to our nature as humans to want to care for and love another. As pack animals, we humans evolved as a species to want to make others happy. We survive as a group by each of us helping other individuals within the group, and receiving help in return.

 

Making cats happy is easier than making most people happy. Their happiness is uncomplicated: give a cat a snuggle or a treat and they’re over the moon with joy. There are no relationship games with cats, and no point holding back feelings, in case the other doesn’t feel as strongly about us as we do about them.

 

I love this quote from Gwen Cooper, author of Homer’s Odyssey, a memoir about living with a blind cat, about loving an animal:

 

“…there’s something deeply fulfilling about knowing that, even in a complicated and often unkind world, you’ve managed to create a pocket of perfect security and bliss for at least one small creature.”[2]

 

What is love, anyway?

 

cat loving a person

I bet you didn’t come to a cat blog expecting answers to life’s big existential questions.

 

And I can’t really offer any. Love is something philosophers, social scientists, psychologists, scholars, musicians, writers, and artists have been striving to understand for centuries.

 

“Relationship science,” in other words, the study of love, actually became a sub-discipline of psychological science about 35 years ago.[3]  Two psychologists, Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Hatfield, proposed that there are actually two kinds of love: passionate love and companionate love.

 

Since then, other researchers have come up with different theories about love. There is Sternberg’s triangular theory of love in which love is a triad of intimacy, passion, and commitment. Hendrick and Hendrick suggested that there are actually six styles of love.[4] And that’s just the tip of the love-theory iceberg.

 

But all of this research is about love between two people, not between a person and their pet. I suspect that the love we offer to our cats, and that we may be seeking from our cats, is most akin to companionate love: friendship, attachment, affection, trust, caring, and respect.[5]

 

Are cats capable of love?

 

cat loving a person

We can’t ask cats directly whether they love us, but we can test cats for certain behaviors and responses that may – or may not – show that they are capable of feeling love.

 

Here are a few of the tests that are used evaluate people (and sometimes, successfully, dogs), that can show whether cats meet any of the criteria for the ability to feel companionate love towards us.

 

Are cats bonded to us?

 

cat loving a person

Let me jump right to the chase: science shows that cats are actually very bonded to us. Now, the details:

 

“Secure attachment” is a term used in psychology to describe a bond between people. People who are securely attached feel safe and have the ability to trust others. Children who are securely attached feel safe with their caregivers and adults who are securely attached are able to form lasting relationships with other people.[6]

 

A test called the Strange Situation Test (SST) was designed to evaluate secure attachment. It’s complicated, and the details aren’t really important, but it involves allowing a young child to explore a new space and meet a friendly stranger, in the presence or absence of her mother.[7]

 

The SST has been performed on dog/guardian pairs, too, and dogs appear to be securely bonded to loving guardians.

 

There were some small studies that seemed to show that cats are not securely attached to their guardians the way dogs are.[8] But these were either poorly designed or too small to be of value.

 

A much larger, more recent study, told a completely different story. This study involved an abbreviated SST called a Secure Base Test.

 

This study showed that approximately 64-66% of cats and kittens qualify as “securely attached” to their caregivers. These results are surprisingly similar to results achieved with human infants and dogs.[9]

 

Wow.

 

Do cats value human companionship?

 

cat loving a person

Science gives a resounding yes to the question about whether cats value our company. Even shelter pets, who may have good reason not to trust humans, choose us.

 

In one study, both pet and shelter kitties were given three out of these four things to choose from: human social interaction, food, a toy, or scent. Scientists clocked how much time the cats spent interacting with each option.

 

Nearly all the cats preferred social interactions with humans over all the other choices. Food got second place – no surprise there.[10]

 

Do cat brains indicate that they love us?

 

cat loving a person

Love may be a feeling, but there is actually a chemical measure of love. You may have heard of oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone.”

 

Certain hormones, including oxytocin, and another hormone, cortisol, are absorbed by the brain to help reinforce certain behaviors.

 

Oxytocin spikes during sex, while giving birth, or when nursing a baby. Even just seeing someone we love, like our spouse or our child, can cause oxytocin levels to jump by 40-60%.[11]

 

A study of oxytocin and cortisol in a very small group of cats show that cats recognize the importance of social interaction with humans.[12]

 

Another study of dogs and cats, who were tested before and after playing with their people, showed a spike in hormones for both species. While dogs’ levels spiked more significantly than cats, this research did show that cats care about their guardians.[13]

 

What are signs that our cats love us?

 

If we accept the idea that cats are capable of companionate love, how do cats show us that they love us?

 

I think there are signs when our cats trust us, are bonded to us, and feel safe in our presence.

 

Here’s what I think you should look for:

 

An upright tail, or a gently waving tail

 

Cats speak with gestures and body language, not words. A cat’s tail can tell a lot about a cat’s mood and feelings.

 

If your cat greets you with an upright tail, with the tip wiggling just a little bit, it’s a signal that your cat is feeling confident and friendly towards you.

 

In a study of feral cats, researchers found that cats who greeted each other tail-up, immediately started rubbing their bodies against each other, a behavior known as allorubbing. Allorubbing is a scent-transferring gesture (read more on this below) that is intended to reinforce the bond between two cats.

 

Or, possibly, between you and your cat.

 

Another tail motion that shows a cat’s trust is the gentle wave.

 

A lounging or sleeping cat who is gently waving her tail in air is saying, “I hear you. I know you’re there, but I trust you enough to keep my eyes closed around you.”

 

Get all the details on cat tail movements in this post.

 

A head butt

 

Cats communicate with body movements, but they also communicate with scent.

 

A cat can tell a lot about another cat through scent. Just sniffing or getting sniffed can cause a cat to release chemical messages, called pheromones. Cats can tell a lot about another cat through these pheromone messages.

 

Because scent is so important in the cat world, cats have scent glands all over their bodies: on their paw pads, foreheads, cheeks, lips, chins, sides, and at the base of their tails.[14] These glands produce an oily substance that is chock full of pheromones.

 

When a cat head butts you (the correct term is actually “head bunt”), he’s transferring some of his own scent to you.

 

This is a behavior that bonded cats do to each other. Individuals transfer scent to other members of the group, so that the colony develops a group scent of its own.

 

So, when a cat head bunts you, she’s not marking you. She’s not claiming you. She’s saying, “We’re family. We should smell like family.”

 

Read all about head bunting in this post. And also read about why cats stick their backsides in your face. It’s a related topic, believe it or not.

 

Licking you

 

 

There are a bunch of reasons why cats lick people, and sometimes it’s just because you taste good.

 

But sometimes, your cat is licking you to involve you in an allogrooming session, even if you didn’t know it.

 

Allogrooming – which means mutual licking or grooming between cats – is something only bonded cats do.

 

If you’re petting your cat, and he starts licking you, it might be because he’s interpreted your petting as allogrooming. He’s just returning the favor.

 

So, sometimes a lick is just a lick. But sometimes, a lick is your cat saying, “You and I are friends, aren’t we?”

 

Read about all the reasons why cats lick people in this post. And read all about why cats lick each other in this post.

 

Sleeping with you

 

 

There are a lot of reasons why a cat might sleep with a person, and sometimes it’s just because your bed is warmer than his bed. So don’t get too excited about this one.

 

But your cat might be sleeping with you because she derives a sense of safety from being close.

 

Remember the Strange Base Test I mentioned above? That study proved that cats are looking to their guardians for security and reassurance.

 

Some cats probably sleep with their guardians because they feel safe with them.

 

Does yours?

 

Here’s a post that provides more information about why your cat might be sleeping with you.

 

Talking to you

 

Not all the sounds that cats make are happy sounds, and not all the sounds a cat makes are about her relationship with you.

 

But some sounds do indicate pleasure in your presence.

 

The trill is a good example. Research suggests that only cats who are feeling really good will trill.

 

A cat who trills when you come home from work is happily greeting you. Cats may also trill when they’re looking for a cuddle or a treat.

 

Read this post to learn what we know about trilling and cats.

 

A purring cat is NOT always a happy cat. Cats may purr when they’re in pain, when they’re nervous, stressed, or sick. Cats can purr to get you to do something for them, which is called an “insistent purr.”

 

But sometimes a purr is exactly what you think it is: the sign of relaxed happiness in your presence. You can be sure a purr is a sign of contentedness if your cat is purring and head bunting you, or kneading.

 

Read this post for more information about why cats purr.

 

Showing you the belly

 

Ah, the kitty tummy. Is there anything more tempting than a cat who flops over to expose her fluffy belly to you? Almost makes you want to touch it…but don’t!

 

Hell hath no fury like a cat who has her belly rubbed. You may have the rare cat who tolerates, or even enjoys a belly rub, but don’t extrapolate. Most cats will shred an errant hand that ventures too close.

 

So, what does showing the belly really mean?

 

When a cat shows you his belly, he’s showing that he trusts you. There are a lot of vital organs beneath the skin of the abdomen, and there’s no skeleton in that area to protect them.

 

So, a cat who willingly exposes his tummy to you is saying, “I know you. I know you’re not a threat. I trust you.”

 

Read about why cats bunny kick to understand how truly trusting a cat is being, who is showing you her belly.

 

Giving you a slow blink

  

You might have heard that the slow blink is a cat’s way of saying, “I love you,” but that’s not exactly accurate.

 

An interesting scientific study of slow-blinking in cats, which actually isn’t so much a blink as a prolonged narrowing of the eyes, shows that we might have it backwards.

 

Cats actually respond to us slow-blinking at them, with a narrowing of their own eyes. Whether this is a behavior that they have learned from us, or whether it’s a social strategy cats already use with each other (for example, to break a stare and prevent a fight), is unknown.

 

What we do know is that cats perceive slow blinking in humans in a positive way. Cats in these slow-blinking experiments were more likely to approach a human after a slow blink, compared to a human with a neutral expression on his or her face.

 

While the slow blink might not really be how a cat says “I love you,” the slow blink does seem to be associated with positive emotions in cats.[15]

 

Take that however you like.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

 

How can I make my cat love me?

How do I know if my cat is happy?

 

Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards!

 

pinterest-friendly pin

 

  

DAwn and Timmy
Dawn LaFontaine

Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] “The Need to Love.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sapient-nature/201401/the-need-love. Accessed 6 May 2024.

 

[2] “Why Do We Love Our Pets?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/homers-odyssey/201104/why-do-we-love-our-pets. Accessed 7 May 2024.

 

[3] Reis, H. T., Aron, A., Clark, M. S., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Ellen Berscheid, Elaine Hatfield, and the Emergence of Relationship Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(5), 558-572. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691613497966

 

[4] “What Is Love?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-you-and-me/202209/what-is-love. Accessed 3 May 2024.

 

[5] ibid.

 

[6] Jan, Misha. “Secure Attachment Style: From Infancy to Adult Relationships.” Simply Psychology, 24 Jan. 2024, www.simplypsychology.org/secure-attachment.html.

 

[7] Dewar, Gwen. “The Strange Situation: Is Your Child Securely Attached?” PARENTING SCIENCE, 21 Apr. 2024, parentingscience.com/strange-situation/.

 

[8] Potter, Alice, and Daniel Simon Mills. “Domestic Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 2 Sept. 2015, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0135109.

 

[9] Kristyn R. Vitale, Alexandra C. Behnke, Monique A.R. Udell, Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans, Current Biology, Volume 29, Issue 18, 2019, Pages R864-R865, ISSN 0960-9822, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31550468/

 

[10] Barrera, G., et al. “Social Interaction, Food, Scent or Toys? A Formal Assessment of Domestic Pet and Shelter Cat (Felis Silvestris Catus) Preferences.” Behavioural Processes, Elsevier, 24 Mar. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635716303424.

 

[11] “Scientists Actually Tested Who Loves Us More - Cats or Dogs.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Feb. 2016, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/bbc-documentary-answers-ageold-question-which-love-us-more-cats-or-dogs-a6844846.html.

 

[12] Nagasawa, Takumi, et al. “The Urinary Hormonal State of Cats Associated with Social Interaction with Humans.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 23 June 2021, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2021.680843/full.

 

[13] “Scientists Actually Tested Who Loves Us More - Cats or Dogs.” The Independent.

 

[14] Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “How Cats Use Scent Communication.” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 11 June 2021, https://catbehaviorassociates.com/how-cats-use-scent-communication/.

 

[15] Humphrey, T., Proops, L., Forman, J. et al. The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication. Sci Rep 10, 16503 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-73426-0 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0

 

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